Many English readers’ will pause when reading the title of this post thinking there is a mistaken apostrophe. But as many of you know, the vogue way of spelling “the Koran” has become “the Qur’an” so two apostrophes are needed. For though English does not allow non-possesive apostrophes we use them occasionally when transliterating words from other languages, in this case Arabic. But what the heck does the apostrophe do for pronouncing “the Qur’an”?
My diagram above shows the breakdown of the Arabic letters in the phrase “the Qur’an”. Arabic reads right to left and omits some vowels in common writing — here, the “u”. Many Arabic sounds (phonemes) are different than English sounds and thus can be transliterated in a variety of fashions. There is not standard transliteration system: here is a list of the main ones. Due to these complications, several common Roman spelling permutations can be seen for any given word. I grew up with “the Koran” as the standard spelling. You can see in the below google ngram that “Qur’an” is actually a new popular spelling and with this has come a change of pronunciation. In my day, we pronounced Koran as “core – an”, but for Qur’an, the “o” was changed to a “u” and the sound is more accurate. The “a” was kept, but is no longer the “a” in apple (or “an”) but is pronounced like the “a” in “father”. However, the “a” in “apple” actually sounds closer to the Arabic on google translate (you tell me). And though the K became a Q, it is merely a cosmetic change with no one attempting the real lingual-glottal intended with the Q. But almost no English speaker will attempt true glottal Q least best they be thought a snob or at worse laughed at. I am not an Arabic speaker, so corrections are welcome.
The apostrophe is called the maddah and signals a glottal stop and lengthening of the “a” and thus those permutations in spelling where the “a” is doubled (“aa”) or has a long mark over it (“ā”). So the new Romanization, “Qur’an”, tells us a bit more about the actual underlying Arabic orthographics, but is correct pronunciation important?
Actually, the pronunciation of “al-Qur’an” even varies between dialects of Arabic. So who cares if we don’t do it right, for there is no real “right”. Below I list the top Arabic dialects in order of number of speakers:
- Egyptian – 50 million
- Algerian – 22 million
- Moroccan/Maghrebi – 19.5 million
- Sudanese – 19 million
- Saidi – 19 million, spoken by some people in Egypt
- North Levantine – 15 million, spoken in Lebanon and Syria
- Mesopotamian – 14 million, spoken in Iraq, Iran and Syria
- Najdi – 10 million spoken in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Syria
Between the pronunciations differences and these varieties of romanizations options, what is the right way to spell, “the Qur’an” in English? Well, like the myth of definitions, spellings change and are not stable or fixed except by particular groups. If you wish, you can arbitrarily choose an authority to prescribe a spelling for you: Webster’s Dictionary, The Chicago Manual of Style, The New York Times Style book, the Associated Press Stylebook. But even their prescriptions will change over time.
The masses may not have power over much, but they certainly do over language — the only place where democracy rules.